One of the longest standing rivalries in college football will be renewed Saturday afternoon in the 115th edition of the 'Big Game' between the Stanford Cardinal and the California Golden Bears at Memorial Stadium.
Stanford dropped to No. 22 in the top-25 after a controversial 20-13 overtime loss to Notre Dame in South Bend. After the Irish scored a touchdown on their first possession in overtime Stanford had a 4th-and-goal opportunity from the one-yard line. Stepfan Taylor got the ball and was stopped before the goal line but appeared to break the plain on a second effort. After it was reviewed officials confirmed the call on the field of no touchdown, handing Stanford the loss. It was the second loss in three games for the Cardinal and drops the squad to 4-2 overall this season.
"I didn't get a view of the last play," head coach David Shaw said. "Stepfan swore to me that he got it. That he got over the goal line on the second effort. The officials looked at it and said he didn't get in, so he didn't get in."
Meanwhile California is coming off its first winning streak of the season with a 31-17 win over Washington State. California is now 3-4 overall this season, while an even 2-2 in Pac-12 play.
These teams first met back in 1892 and have been matched up on the gridiron 114 times leading up to Saturday's matchup. This rivalry has featured some of the most iconic games in college football history including the famous face off in 1982 that featured 'The Play' where the Stanford band charged the field while California's Kevin Moen returned the final kickoff for a touchdown. Stanford holds a 57-46-11 edge in the all-time series, including a 24-21-6 mark at Memorial Stadium. The Cardinal have also won the last two games in the series.
Even though Taylor was stuffed on the crucial fourth down play, the play call to give him the ball fell in line with what has worked for the Cardinal offense all season. The Cardinal have piled up 921 yards on the ground this season and averages 153.5 yards per game rushing.
Bearing the bulk of the load for the run-heavy offense is Taylor who is the fourth leading rusher in the Pac-12 with 657 yards. He has also carried the ball 147 times and scored three touchdowns. No other player on the team has more than 18 carries or 100 yards.
Giving the ball to Taylor in that situation also made sense with how poorly Josh Nunes played at quarterback. Nunes completed less than 50 percent of his pass attempts (12-of-25) for 125 yards and was also picked off twice. On the season Nunes has been less than spectacular with just a 53.3 percent completion percentage and eight touchdowns to go with six interceptions.
Tight End Zach Ertz has followed in the steps of other Stanford tight ends in recent past, leading the squad in receptions (25) and yards (371). Behind him is the heavily worked Taylor, who has 19 receptions this season, second most on the team. Levine Toilolo has made the most of his 13 receptions, averaging 21.4 yards per catch.
As a team that has had such strong defenses in recent past, the Cardinal have been a bit more average in comparison to the rest of the Pac-12 this season. Stanford is currently ranked seventh in the conference in total defense (369.5 ypg) and fifth in scoring defense (21.5 ppg).
Even with such modest results, Stanford has talent throughout the roster on defense. Chase Thomas is the leading tackler (35) from the linebacker position and has also contributed six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Jordan Richards has snagged a pair of interceptions and has team-highs in pass breakups (eight) and passes defended (10), while accumulating 34 tackles. Ben Gardner (7.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks) has been the squad's best pass rusher.
As for California, the Golden Bears have seen an upswing in their offensive production during the win streak. After failing to score more than 28 points in four of its first five games, Cal is averaging 37 points per game over the last two. California has also had at least 480 yards of total offense during that span.
The emergence of C.J. Anderson has been a big part of the offense's resurgence in recent weeks. Anderson is coming off his second straight 100-yard rushing effort after he had 112 yards on 15 carries versus Washington State last weekend. Anderson's 511 yards this season and four rushing touchdowns are both team-highs. Anderson is not alone in providing a strong rushing attack, with Isi Sofele (87 carries, 444 yards) and Brendan Bigelow (23, 277) also producing. The Golden Bears' 1,365 rushing yards as a team this season is the third best total in the Pac-12.
"We have one of the best running back groups in the country no matter who's out there," Anderson said.
All that rushing comes despite its best offensive weapon playing wideout. Keenan Allen has been electric for the Golden Bears this season, snagging 52 passes for 633 yards and five touchdowns. Allen's 52 receptions are behind only USC's Marqise Lee in the Pac-12. Putting his numbers into even further context is the fact that Chris Harper, the second leading receiver, has 18 receptions for 212 yards this season.
Zach Maynard has the privilege of throwing to Allen but this season he has been inconsistent. Maynard is completing a solid 61.8 percent of his passes for 1,537 yards and 10 touchdowns, but he also has seven interceptions and has failed to reach the 200-yard passing mark in three of the last four games.
California is in the bottom half of the conference defensively speaking. The Golden Bears rank ninth in both scoring (26.4 ppg) and total defense (418.7 ypg). The defense has had a habit of giving up too many first downs, especially on third down with teams converting successfully on 44.5 percent of their attempts.
Josh Hill (47) and Steve Williams (46) are the two leading tacklers, although Williams has made more contributions elsewhere with 3.5 tackles for loss, a team-high three interceptions and seven pass breakups. Kameron Jackson also has three picks this season, while Marc Anthony and Chris McCain are both tied for the team lead with 5.5 tackles for loss.